Sunday, September 27, 2009

Le Conservatoire de Musique

I took a long walk today, across my arrondissement all the way to Porte Saint Denis. I passed the building where Liszt once lived, I passed the Conservatoire de Musique. I walked along several narrow passageways and through a covered passageway that is not gentrified for the tourists, but in a rather rough part of town. In fact, the whole area around Porte Saint-Denis is pretty rough and I had a brush, if not with danger, than at least with fear.

I'll get to that in a moment. This passageway, according to the sign was built in the 18th century. It's been repaved. It stretches around that corner across a long block. It felt just a little dangerous to me, claustrophobic because the walls are high, four stories or so, and the path is narrow. Common fare before Paris was redesigned in the late 19th century.  A little too empty for my taste. I felt vulnerable.

I have a similar path in my book, though, so I was really happy to find and walk it and experience my response. It spit me out very near to the street where Franz Liszt lived. I found the street number of his house, unmarked. The street number of Géricault's house is unmarked too, and the building looked to be from the 18th century, so I think it was the genuine article. I don't mean to imply I'm some kind of expert on the buildings, but I have, from class now, more or less learned to distinguish the basics that give me a sense of whether the building was there before Baron Haussmann's redesign of Paris which took place from the mid 1850s until the early 1870s, after the events of my book.

I learned something else,
which I suppose should have been obvious, but wasn't. Behind double doors, like the ones that are everywhere, like the ones that mark my building, sometimes there's an open courtyard, a drive that carriages passed along. The doors don't open to the inside of a building. That's why I couldn't find the Square d'Orleans. It's a door, something like this one, that opens into a courtyard. I went inside and photographed the staircase that went up to the door. It could be approached from either side, looked very grand.

I also found the church that Tori visits, just adjacent to the Conservatoire de Musique. After taking a number of pictures, I noticed the door was open and went in. The priests were saying mass. The sanctuary was filled with worshipers. I took a seat in the back. It was a high mass, sung, and all in Latin.  The church was absolutely sumptuous, gorgeous. The interior was mostly wood, not stone, the rich warm brown of polished wood accented with rose windows, stained glass in colors of blue and aqua. I've seen a lot of churches traveling in Europe, this had to be one of the most beautiful. 

I left feeling nourished by the best of what Catholicism has to offer. The choir sounded angelic, reverberating, the priest sang the mass, his voice echoing, the smell of incense. It was quite intoxicating.  Outside again, I explored the facade of the Conservatoire, which is still a teaching facility. Now it houses dramatic arts. It had an historical plaque that spoke of the works Berlioz debuted here. It's a huge building that seems to take up most of the block, very narrow streets on three sides, the square that fronts the church on the forth.

From there I headed off toward Porte Saint-Denis. I'm now convinced I saw it the day I got lost. The street that comes down from the north, which is one of the streets I was on that day, is quite strait, you can see a long ways. I found a café that was literally at its base and had lunch. That was fun. It was my first meal in a café. The waiter, and older man, was quite charming and kind to me. He more or less helped me along whenever my French failed me.

Another single, older woman who seemed a native sat at a table near me and I watched him wait on her as well. It don't quite know what it was, but I think it was Paris—the red checkered tablecloth, the bottle on my table that was water, but looked like wine. The wine glass from which I drank it. I had a salad that had chicken in it and green beans and corn, with a very tasty dressing made with balsamic vinegar. I totally enjoyed myself. Like the mass, it just seemed the perfect expression of itself. And it was not in a touristy part of town. In fact, it's on the edge of what felt like a rather dangerous part of town.

Once I got up from the café and started to walk around the area. I did notice that it was, like the area around Gare du Nord, impoverished and that the people on the streets looked pretty rough and tumble. I walked through a covered passageway that I'd read about. I expected it to be gritty and it was. Apparently one of the only such passageways left that hasn't been gentrified and turned into an expensive shopping mall. It was run down, many of the shop fronts closed down, a lot of men smoking and watching me. As I came back to the main street a man almost ran me over while simultaneously giving me a loud "bonjour."

He caught me off guard. I wasn't afraid of him—he seemed completely harmless, just after my attention. I ignored him. I haven't decided what to do about men on the street hailing me. It doesn't happen all the time, but it's happened enough so that I realize it's part of being here. I crossed the street, he did too. I don't think he was following me. I think he was headed that way. As I passed by the Metro, I noticed a number of women lingering. It crossed my mind that they might be prostitutes, not so much because of their dress, rather something in the way they were lounging.

I stopped to take pictures of the arch and then of the buildings. The same man reappeared and teased me, I think, about the fact that I was taking pictures of nothing—or so it seemed.  I should have got the message by then that I was standing out in the crowd, that I'd announced myself, but I was dense. I hadn't put all the pieces together.

I turned the camera towards the buildings down the street, looking for the place that housed the printing press back in 1830 that I mention in my book. I was trying to make up my mind if any of the buildings were that old. I snapped a picture and a woman across the street started yelling loudly at ... me? I think so. She was very angry. She yelled "Non!" several times and a lot more I didn't understand.

I stopped and looked at her and said, "d'accord," which means "okay—agreed" and put the camera away, not sure if she was calling out to me or the man just down the street, but I was feeling conspicuous finally. After that, I started on, continuing down the street. I hadn't gone more than about twenty feet when the hair on the back of my neck stood up and my body just went cold.

Nothing happened. I just had a physical response to my environment. It dawned on me that the women I had seen and the woman who had yelled were of one world. I'm pretty sure they were prostitutes and that they did not like me taking pictures. I turned around, and headed back for the Metro station. It felt like everyone on the street, at that point, was watching me. I felt like they were sizing me up, trying to figure out if I was really just a dumbassed tourist or someone posing as a dumbassed tourist. Another man called out to me pretty insistently. I was very happy to descend the staircase into the Metro station and even happier to board the train.

I didn't calm down really, for quite some time. I took the Metro to Isle of the Cité where I had planned to go next, to the bird market that's there every Sunday and walked around, feeling unnerved even though I was in the shadow of Notre Dame surrounded by tourists and birds.

I found a place to sit by the Seine. It was a gorgeous day and I watched the river and the river boats and wrote for awhile, contemplating what had happened. I realized then how stupid I'd acted, how much I'd stood out in that environment, how self-absorbed I'd been.

Later, I went to the Church of Saint Eustache near Les Halles, where we'd been for class earlier in the week. I went there to hear a free organ concert, Bach's Toccata and Fugue. A friend from the Santa Rosa group met me there, which was nice. The church was full of people who'd come for the concert and the organist was superb.  I closed my eyes and felt transported. He played to a standing ovation.  It was an interesting day.


  1. Bach's Toccata and Fugue, ONe of my all time favorites, always transports me.
    I am glad you are safe, and that you weren't decided to be an underconver dumbass!
    Be safe Molly!

  2. Molly,
    I should have mentioned this book to you before you left. It is Leonard Pitt's "Walks through Lost Paris." I am sure that Shakespeare and Company will have a copy. He has photos comparing pre-Hausmann Paris to modern day Paris.

    I saw him do a slide show at Copperfield's in Montgomery Village a few years back. It was wonderful.

    He also does tours of Paris - when he's in town. He lives in the East Bay normally. Perhaps you might get lucky and have him answer your questions on a tour while you are there.

    Check out his website at: